Sticks and Stones: A Failure of Investigative Journalism

izzzy featureBY IZZY KALMAN

“Love criticism. It will bring you to your highest level.” — Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” – Ancient Wisdom

Author’s Transparency Declaration: I declare that I am part of the anti-bullying industry that I criticize. I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

The most highly publicized book on school bullying of recent years is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate and writer for The New York Times magazine. Her book has made her a leading authority in the anti-bullying field.
Ms. Bazelon is a lawyer by training and investigative journalist by profession. She made it a personal mission to investigate solutions to bullying in the hope of bringing relief for this problem that’s been plaguing the modern world ever since the Columbine shooting of 1999.

When I heard about the book, I was excited that finally there will be an investigative look into the workings of the anti-bullying industry, along the lines of books such as the recent Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Michael Moss, or The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson. I was hoping to be able to write a glowing review of Bazelon’s book. She had previously made a name for herself by revealing the travesty of the South Hadley High School bullying trial. I assumed she would direct her scathing gaze into the workings of the anti-bullying industry, for it has been dismally failing to live up to its promise.

Unfortunately, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to discourage its use, for Bazelon is a lovely person with wonderful intentions. Bazelon, does, in fact, make some good points in the book. I sincerely appreciate her courage in coming to some unpopular conclusions. The negatives, though, far outweigh the positives. The subtitle of the book implies that she has uncovered the secret recipe for a solution to the bullying crisis. On the contrary: her book represents a serious setback to the chances of discovering what actually works. Both research and plain experience have been showing that the approaches she passionately promotes barely make a dent in bullying and even result in an increase. Unfortunately, instead of presenting this readily available information and looking for routes that have more promise, she steers us back onto the tracks that have been getting us nowhere.

Bazelon has embarked on a search for truth. This requires an unbiased mindset. However, it is extremely difficult to be unbiased about an issue for which one is a passionate social activist with predetermined beliefs. Because she thinks and behaves like an anti-bullying activist, she has been blinded to anything that doesn’t support her conviction that the solution to bullying is to “defeat the culture of bullying” and to involve all of society in protecting victims from bullies. She seems unaware that this is precisely what the modern world has been doing intensively for a decade-and-a-half yet bullying is now being called an epidemic by major anti-bullying organizations, and children continue to suffer and even commit suicide because of bullying. As Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Ironically, the solution to bullying has been known for thousands of years, and even Ms. Bazelon intuitively knows what it is, as I will explain later, but her anti-bully activist mindset has prevented her from looking in that direction.

I wish Ms. Bazelon would have bothered to explain the choice of “Sticks and Stones” as the title for her book. It happens to be a brilliant choice for marketing purposes, as it is the phrase most closely associated in people’s minds with bullying. The full slogan is, of course, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” which expresses the solution to verbal bullying. Bazelon appears to consider the slogan to be “a lie,” as the leading bullying experts do, because of the obvious reality that victims of bullying feel terribly hurt by words. Unfortunately, as a result, she ignores the solution rather than promoting it.

The following are some of the potential sources of Ms. Bazelon’s bias.

  1. She herself was a victim of bullying as a child. She never understood why she was bullied or how to make the bullying stop.
  2. She is a parent of two young children and wants them to grow up in a world in which they are spared the misery she endured.
  3. She cares about all victims of bullying and believes they deserve to be protected from bullying.
  4. She is a lawyer, not an expert in psychology.
  5. She is a reporter for leading mainstream news outlets.

Because of her legal training, she has succeeded in seeing some important things that most people miss:

  1. She knows that each side in a conflict has their own point of view. She discovered that the teenage defendants in the suicide of South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince hardly fit the picture of heartless bullies intending to drive Phoebe to kill herself, and that Phoebe was not simply an innocent victim of bullying.
  2. She realizes that the term “bullying” is overused and advocates for more cautious use of the term.
  3. She explains that the term “bullycide”–treating suicide like homicide caused by someone else–is legally untenable.
  4. She notes that anti-bullying laws and policies conflict with First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of speech (though she makes no attempt to reconcile this conflict).

Additionally, her journalistic skills enabled her to bring us some hard-to-find information. In addition to her excellent reporting on the South Hadley case, she gained entry into the bowels of FaceBook. She bravely challenged their officers, refusing to blindly accept what they told her or to succumb to their hopes that she write a “puff piece” in exchange for allowing her to go where no other reporter has been. She implicates FaceBook’s financial interests in attracting young users, and reveals its largely inadequate efforts to deal with the the perpetual avalanch of bullying complaints. Additionally, Bazelon was granted interviews with Prof. Dan Olweus, the creator of the modern field of bullying, and brings us a personal glimpse of his life that is hard to find anywhere else.

Despite these islands of insight, Bazelon has failed to find a reliable solution to bullying because her investigative journalism has extremely distinct boundaries. The only people who she considers above question are “bullying researchers.” She treats them with nothing short of religious reverence, accepting their teachings with an unquestioning faith in their absolute truth and wisdom. The gushy, wide-eyed adulation with which she writes about Dan Olweus and the researchers who follow his lead would make deeper thinkers like Aristotle, Jesus, Freud, Jung or Adler turn red with envy. (Well, maybe not Jesus).

This bias in favor of researchers is one that affects all the major news media. To avoid being accused of presenting mere opinion, they play it safe by relying on “researchers,” for their numbers and statistical analyses give us the illusion that they possess the key to concrete, unbiased truth. But researchers are not the experts in solving life’s problems. Knowing how to conduct a random controlled experiment, to apply complex statistical formulas and to formulate reports peppered with references does not qualify a person as a sage. The data alone don’t mean anything. Researchers need to accurately understand the subject they are studying, interpret the numbers correctly, and extrapolate logical conclusions from the results. Aristotle explained that research is the best tool for technology – for making things – but the best tool for solving life’s problems is wisdom. This involves correctly understanding the laws of nature and applying logic. No amount of random controlled experiments can substitute for wisdom.

Most of the world’s wisdom was acquired long before there were psychological research journals. Research studies are only necessary for answering questions that cannot be answered otherwise. For example, you don’t need a research study to know that if you drop an egg from a height of six feet onto a tile floor, it is going to break. We also don’t need research studies to know what works for bullying because it has been discovered countless times, and anyone can easily discover it as well: If you get upset when you are bullied, the bullying will continue. If you don’t get upset, the bullying will stop. (You can view this phenomenon here, and try it out for yourself: )

While Bazelon refused to write a puff piece for FaceBook, she ended up instead writing a puff piece for the leaders of the anti-bullying industry despite their lackluster results. She praises the effectiveness of their programs in glowing terms even the researchers themselves would no longer dare use, because their own research has contraindicated such praise.

She writes in detail about two programs that she claims have “proven track records.” One is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) and the other is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). She leads readers to believe that if their children are being bullied, these programs are their salvation. Undoubtedly, thanks to Sticks and Stones, parents all over the world are now pressuring their children’s schools to pay for these intensive programs. School administrators, too, will be eager to allocate budgets for these programs in the expectation that they will create for them the peaceful school environments they crave. No paid advertisement could have possibly done more for the marketing of these programs than Bazelon’s book.

Unfortunately, the researchers’ own studies indicate that the great majority of parents who place their hopes in these programs are almost certain to be in for a shocking disappointment. Bazelon neglects to inform us that the “proven track record” of these programs is that they are essentially useless for ending the suffering of victims of bullying. She mentions that a large scale study of the OBPP is being conducted in Pennsylvania. For some strange reason, she doesn’t report the results of the study, which was completed and publicized more than a year prior to her book’s publication! The charitable Highmark Foundation spent $9 million to implement the research study. They spent another $10 million on public relations, apparently to convince the their benefactors that they are spending their money wisely (read the pr spin in the press release about the study that was widely disseminated in the news media: )  After two years of implementation with fidelity, overseen by the Olweus company itself, there was a 12% reduction in the number of students who reported being bullied twice or more per month.

First of all, what does it mean to be bullied twice or more per month? Everyone gets picked on occasionally. We need to be focusing our concern on the kids who are bullied relentlessly, every single day. These are the kids who need the help. They are the ones who are suffering in countless ways, and are in danger of hurting themselves or others. The study doesn’t say a word about them. For all we know, their numbers increased during the program implementation. But lets give the OBPP the benefit of the doubt and assume a 12% across-the-board reduction in the number of kids who are bullied. What do we tell the parents of the remaining 88% of students who are still being bullied after two years of this intensive program…“Sorry but your child wasn’t one of the lucky one-out-of-nine kids that our program actually helps.”?

And how about PBIS? A massive study, at the cost of $13.5 million, was conducted in Baltimore by researchers at Johns Hopkins. The results, published about a year before Bazelon’s book, found that bullying increased during the study!

It is not only Bazelon who fails to challenge the bullying researchers. All of the major news media do. And so do all the major psychological organizations. They universally promote the teachings of Olweus despite the fact that they run counter to the most basic and well-established principles of the psychological helping professions.

If Bazelon were a psychologist, she could be excused for failing to question Olweus’ teachings when the entire psychological world endorses them. But she’s an investigative journalist. Her job is to ask difficult questions and uncover the truth that the psychologists may be failing to tell the public, especially since the leading researchers have vested interests in promoting their programs. If she were to write a book on the effectiveness of medications, would she rely solely on the spokesmen of the major pharmaceutical companies? Yet, amazingly, that is precisely what she is doing with bullying. She unquestioningly accepts and enhances what the leaders of the anti-bullying industry tell her. A paid public relations consultant could not have done a better job.

While relating Olweus’ history, she mentions that when his approach became prominent due to Columbine, he had his critics. Who are these critics? She doesn’t name even one. Personally, I have no idea who she is referring to, as I have never seen anyone in the professional literature criticize Olweus by name. And what exactly were the concerns of these unnamed critics? Doesn’t the public deserve to know? Rather than examining the criticism, like a dutiful daughter she protects Olweus from it. As justification for ignoring his critics, she informs us that there are now thousands of research studies based on his teachings, while conveniently ignoring the fact that those studies have failed to provide a reliable solution to bullying.

Interestingly, she has contemptuous words of criticism for Barbara Coloroso who, if anything, is Olweus on steroids. Coloroso has probably done more than anyone to popularize his name and teachings. Her bestselling book, The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, could easily have carried the same title as Bazelon’s. Bazelon attacks Coloroso for giving a one-day training to the South Hadley High School at the cost of $9,000 that failed to prevent Phoebe Prince’s suicide. The truth is that even if the school had implemented the intensive Olweus program for two years, it probably still would not have prevented poor Phoebe’s suicide because its success rate is only 12%.

Another major flaw of Sticks and Stones is that it does not mention a single expert who knows how to teach victims how to stop being bullied on their own. Bazelon, in fact, intuitively knows that that is the best solution. In the advice section of her book, she tells victims of bullying that if they can’t make the bullying stop on their own, they should turn to an adult (though the adult may not know how to solve the problem). This means, of course, that if kids knew how to stop being bullied on their own, no other intervention would be necessary.

However, not one of the researchers she glorifies in her book actually knows how to reliably teach victims how to stop being bullied.  This includes Olweus himself, which is why he created a program based on the attempt to protect kids from each other.

And it’s not that such experts don’t exist. They have always been around, and there are probably more of them now than ever. A search engine could have quickly helped her find some of these practitioners. However, if Bazelon happens to know of them, she ignored them. Perhaps because they don’t carry the title of “researcher.” Furthermore, Bazelon is a lawyer, and it is natural for her to identify with the legalistic Olweus approach to bullying, which treats it as a crime from which children deserve to be protected, rather than as an inevitable part of life that children deserve to be taught how to handle.

Bullying will continue to be a major problem even if everyone in the world reads Sticks and Stones. But it’s still not too late to find the age-old solution. If Bazelon or any other investigative journalist is interested in writing a book that will actually help solve the bullying problem, I invite them to turn to me. I will help them find what they are looking for.

izzyEducation Editor, Israel “Izzy” Kalman, is Director of Bullies to Buddies (, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.

The Moral Liberal recommends Israel Kalman’s: Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies Into Friends


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